Forrest County schools to build safe rooms with FEMA grant

Forrest County schools to build safe rooms with FEMA grant
The Dixie Attendance Center will be the first school in Forrest County to build a safe room on campus through the FEMA grant. Source: WDAM.

FORREST COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Students in Forrest County will soon have a safe place to head to if severe weather strikes during the school day thanks to funding from FEMA.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a grant for $1 million to construct a stand-alone safe room outside of Hattiesburg, U.S. Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker and Congressman Steven Palazzo announced Tuesday.  But, that's not all.

Forrest County Board of Supervisors President David Hogan said the county has secured not just one, but three grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

"You think about parents having to worry about their children being safe or getting to their children during bad weather, that is going to be taken care of through these safe rooms and it's going to be a great thing," said Hogan.

The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program provides funding to states and local governments for long-term hazard mitigation activities designed to reduce the loss of life and property due to natural disasters.  Hogan said the county started the application process in 2010 and now, FEMA has approved about $12 million to build the safe rooms at schools in the Forrest County and Petal School Districts, as well as Forrest County Agricultural High School.

"These kids will be in a safe place and people can rest assured their child is safe and not have to worry about making arrangements to get them to a safe place," Hogan said.

The first safe room will be at the Dixie Attendance Center,  designed to shelter the school's students, faculty and staff with the ability to withstand winds of 250 mph.

"There's an effort to design each shelter to meet the aesthetics of that particular school," said Hogan.  "But, if you take a look at our 361 shelter, our emergency storm shelter, it will be much like that."

According to the FEMA, data shows that investments in hazard mitigation before a disaster creates a net savings of taxpayer dollars during post-disaster response and recovery periods.

"We've had a lot of tornadoes in the past several years and they seem to become more and more frequent," said U.S. Representative Steven Palazzo.  "We want people to have a safe harbor."

In June 2015, FEMA awarded $85,050 to Forrest County for planning and design work.  The project at the Dixie Attendance Center is expected to cost $1.18 million overall.

"We think that this will expand throughout the Pine Belt and the country really," said Hogan.  "We are proud to be some of the first ones to get these grants and provide these safe rooms for our children."

Hogan said the school districts have also been included in the grant conversation and may be pulled in to help with funding.  The county hope to have the design for the first safe room finalized soon, so construction can start this summer.